Lately I’ve been playing a lot of my two favorite Duke Ellington discs: And His Mother Called Him Bill and The Far East Suite. The latter is an unjustly neglected item in the Ellington catalogue, the product of a 1963 goodwill tour of the Middle East that was cut short by the assassination of JFK. Ellington and his right-hand man Billy Strayhorn went home with a new array of tones and colors, which they applied with great subtlety to their jazz orchestra compositions. Here’s a great clip of the suite’s greatest tune: “Isfahan,” a showcase for saxophonist Johnny Hodges.
And His Mother Called Him Bill is the Ellington orchestra’s farewell to Strayhorn, recorded only a few months after his death and filled with the defiant joy of playing the music he helped create. It’s a wonderful, rich record devoted exclusively to Strayhorn tunes, one of which — “Blue Cloud” — was retitled “Blood Count” by Ellington to reflect the medical woes that dogged Strayhorn’s last days. I couldn’t find any good clips, but there is one of “Blue Cloud” performed by the Stan Getz Quartet that should give you an idea of the sound.